Even if you didn’t know John Caouette, you’ll soon have the opportunity to be warmed by his memory in Caouette Cabin, a structure currently being built at Twin Lakes as a heated skaters’ cabin and an all-season shelter for public use.
If you did know Caouette, a local man who died in 2010, you’ll immediately recognize the fitting nature of this memorial; it reflects not only Caouette’s love of skating, but also his generosity of spirit, one that thrived on bringing people together to enjoy the outdoors and each other.
An excellent skater who grew up playing pond hockey on Minnesota lakes, Caouette preferred the outdoor setting and inclusiveness of Twin Lakes to the rink in Douglas, friends say. He could often be found on a winter day playing a pick-up hockey game with his friends, helping parents teach their children to skate, or playing with his own two children, Rosie and Alder.
Caouette was 46 when he died in an accident while visiting family in Minnesota. Through the confusion and shock, his widow, Rebecca Braun, sought to find a way to channel the scattered energy of grief — for herself and for others who loved Caouette — into something that could benefit the community.
“John was so active and such a giver and I knew that people were going to want to do something active with his loss,” Braun said this week. “I wanted to find a way to turn it into something positive — harness that energy.”
Braun said the idea for the cabin came up very early on, within days of her husband’s death, while she was sitting shiva at her home (a Jewish tradition that involves receiving visitors during a week-long period of mourning).
“The house was kind of mobbed with people and I remember Julie Nielsen, who’s a hockey player and a friend, coming up to me and saying ‘Becca, some of us want to build a shelter by Twin Lakes in John’s memory.’ And I thought, I like that,” Braun said.
Braun had already set up a memorial fund for Caouette through the Juneau Community Foundation, a local nonprofit that allows public donations and gives the fund’s adviser control over how the money is used. She hadn’t yet decided the best way to honor him with those donations, but the idea for the shelter quickly grew on her. Soon, the hockey community picked it up and ran with it.
“The idea came up and it was just one of those things, everyone immediately felt it was perfect, something we had to make happen,” Jeff Morehouse, a hockey player and unofficial head of the cabin’s volunteer construction team, said. “John was a hockey player and he played at the rink at Treadwell and enjoyed it, but his true love was out here at the pond.”
Now, two years after Caouette’s death, the project is well on its way to fruition. On Saturday, day three of construction, Morehouse and volunteer workers Steve Box, Tom Wehnes and Suzanne McGee placed the long joists that will support the roof over the cabin’s deck. Behind them, skaters made use of the new ice on the lakes, as the Chilkats glowed in the sun in the distance. The placement of the cabin was one of the very easy decisions the team had to make; it is situated near the intersection of Glacier Highway and Hospital Drive, where skaters naturally gather to put on their skates. It is also located near the docks, where kids come to swim and fish in the summer, and will provide a nice picnic spot for warmer days. The door and large front windows are oriented toward the lake, the sun and the Chilkats.
Chris Mertyl, a member of the design team, said the structure evolved from a warming hut to a skaters’ cabin, to an all-season shelter over the course of many meetings. It’s a place that will be open to everyone, in any weather, he said, though it will be locked at night for security.
“The whole idea is to celebrate John,” Mertyl said. “It’s not for exclusive use, it’s for community use and that’s why it evolved from a warming shelter into something that could be used during the summer as a cabin.”
The cabin, which is entirely enclosed, is being built from Tongass woods, ordered on a discount from Wes Tyler’s Icy Straits Lumber. The walls are made from red cedar from Prince of Wales Island. The beams and the rafters are spruce, and the deck posts and trim are yellow cedar; the spruce and yellow cedar come from Chichagof Island. The choice of local woods reflects Caouette’s interest in the forests, and cedar trees in particular. He worked for the Nature Conservancy and the Forest Service, and was passionate about the environment.
The heating element in the cabin will likely be coin- or credit-card-operated or something similar, Morehouse said, adding that those details haven’t yet been worked out. A set of stairs is also planned to lead skaters down to the water.
The cabin stands on city property, but is being constructed entirely by volunteers. Once it is complete, the city will take over its management, probably sometime early next year. Construction is expected to continue throughout December.
Rory Watt, who is the city engineer but is involved in the project as a regular citizen, managed the permiting process for the project, and received approval exactly two years to the day after Caouette’s death, Oct. 12. That was a Friday. By Monday morning, volunteer worker Gene Cheeseman had cleared the lot of trees and leveled the ground. Soon after, Fred Pollard laid the cement foundation, which was quickly personalized by the handprints of Caouette’s children, Rosie and Alder, now 11 and nearly 5.
The first two days of construction went very quickly, with the walls going up three or four feet on the first day, Nov. 17.
Watt, who was very close to Caouette, said planning for the cabin has helped him process his grief over the past two years.
“For me it’s kind of turned it from remorse and sadness to being able to do something good, something useful. So it’s been personally really good for me,” Watt said.
A huge number of people cooperated in making the project happen, said Nielsen, who is the unofficial project manager for the cabin. Some of the volunteers didn’t even know Caouette, such as Wehnes, a contractor and former Icy Straits Lumber employee who was originally brought in to help the team figure out their materials list but ended up signing up for the long haul, and Lonnie Gehring, an engineer who was key in developing the design. Other players in the design and planning phase include Marc Scholten and Alan Steffert, Nielson’s husband.
The project also benefitted from the corporate sponsorship of the Max Fisher hockey league, Watt said.
Mertyl said there’s no way to name all of the people who have done their part.
“It’s been a huge community partnership, A lot of people have come out of the woodwork and gotten involved and donated their expertise in design, earthworks, putting in concrete, doing the engineering, doing renderings, permitting. There’s a lot that goes into something this simple.”
Braun said she feels very lucky that it has all come together, and is grateful for the generosity of so many people. The experience of watching people come together to honor her husband’s memory has also made her think about the impact each of us can make on others and on our communities.
“He definitely cut a big swath,” Braun said. “I never would have guessed that he had so much impact and so many connections. And I think we all do. We all at least have the potential to make a bigger difference than we realize.”
Those who wish to help with the project should check the Caouette Cabin Facebook page, where the latest updates about the project are posted. Right now, in the construction phase, labor is limited to a core group of people with building experience, but down the road there will be more hands-on detail work involved that will be suitable for a broader range of people. In the spring, Braun hopes to plant flowers.
Another way to help is to make a donation by sending a check to Juneau Community Foundation, 350 N. Franklin St., Suite 4, Juneau, AK 99801 or by donating online at juneaucf.org. In both cases, donors should specify that the donation is for the John Caouette Memorial Fund. Contributions are tax deductible.
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